If the NFL wants a case study on how not to handle tragic situations involving past and current players, it should look no further than professional wrestling.
Here’s a small sample of well-known professional wrestlers who have died before the age of 50 since 1997: Bam Bam Biggelow, Eddie Guerrero, The Big Bossman, Hercules, Crash Holly, Road Warrior Hawk, Ms. Elizabeth, Mr. Perfect, Davey Boy Smith, Chris Benoit, Yokozuna, Chris Kanyon, Ravashing Rick Rude, Louie Spicolli and Brian Pillman.
All of those wrestlers died from suicide, drug overdoses, or health complications that many speculate were caused by years of abusing drugs, painkillers, steroids and/or alcohol.
If you used to watch wrestling, or just tolerated it while your kids or spouse watched it, chances are you recognize many of those names.
Now think back to your favorite Packers players from the 80s and 90s. What if 15 of them were dead, all before the age of 50, many from suicide, drug overdoses or health complications (likely) caused by abusing drugs and alcohol?
We’d be shocked, right? We’d probably ask questions about the Packers’ culture. We’d want to know if there were warning signs, or if management could have done something to help these guys before they went over the edge. The media would do all sorts of exposes and law enforcement might event get involved. We would demand answers. Then we’d demand changes.
At least I hope we would. I’d like to think that we wouldn’t be so blinded by wins and loses that we’d forget these guys are human beings. But because I’m an avid pro wrestling fan, sometimes I wonder.
I know comparing wrestling to football is apples and oranges. — one is choreographed violence and the other is a legitimate (and aggressive) sport — but wrestling fans have done little over the years to question the wrestling powers-that-be about why so many of their wrestlers die so young.
Chris Benoit murdering his family and then killing himself finally brought some attention to the subject, but for the most part, wrestling fans pay little attention to what happens outside of the ring as long as the Rock is delivering People’s Elbows or Stone Cold Steve Austin is chugging beers inside of it.
Junior Seau’s suicide this week shocked everyone who pays attention to the NFL. Seau was an NFL star that both old and new fans recognized and admired. We saw his enthusiasm on the field and his personality off of it and thought he was invincible. Then he killed himself.
Immediately, people blamed concussions. Or depression caused by concussion. Or steroids. Or mood swings caused by steroids. Or suddenly being out of the spotlight. Or depression and mood swings caused by being out of the spotlight. We see it almost every time something tragic happens. People want answers, and they want them now.
Eventually the extreme emotional reaction calms a bit. That’ll happen in the Seau case, too. Training camp will start up, then the regular season, and we’ll be caught up in football season once again.
As football fans, I hope we don’t mimic wrestling fans and mostly turn a blind eye and forget about Seau and other NFL players that have taken their own lives. Ditto for the concussion issue and the transitioning-from-NFL-star-to-regular-person issue.
Football fans have an opportunity to hold the NFL accountable and make sure it addresses issues that affect the long-term health of its current and former players. We need to make sure we do it.
For several reasons, I think we will. People take football seriously. They develop a (sometimes creepy) bond with players on their favorite teams. Most people, including many fans, view wrestling as a sideshow or something that allows them to turn their brains off for a few hours. The out-of-the-ring connection isn’t there with wrestlers like it is with football players.
I’m not saying that we should quit watching football or boycott the NFL because of player wellness issues. If we ignored forms of entertainment simply because the culture surrounding it was questionable, we’d probably never watch a movie, go to a concert or attend a sporting event ever again. And I understand that we’re talking about adults. Grown men are responsible for making their own decisions. It’s not Roger Goodell’s or Vince McMahon’s job to babysit every player and wrestler to make sure they’re not doing drugs or becoming emotionally unstable.
But they can provide tools and resources to help players address these issues. For the NFL, these steps include continuing to improve player safety, providing adequate health coverage for current and former players and offering assistance on transitioning out of the NFL.
Professional wrestling waited way too long to take these steps. The NFL already is light years ahead of wrestling. Let’s hope it continues heading in the right direction.
Many of us fork over big bucks so we can follow our favorite teams. We’re more than happy to do this because we love the NFL and want to see it continue, maybe even grow. By holding the league accountable and asking it to invest in the well-being of its players, we’re making sure we preserve the game, and the human beings that play it, for the long-term.
I got a little carried away and deep with that intro. It’s hard to link to stories about draft picks and make witty comments about Packers news after writing 850 words about suicide, dead wrestlers and concussions. I think I’ll end this edition of Surviving Sunday early.
RIP Junior Seau.——————